Ottawa needs to better promote itself on world stage, city summit told

Ottawa downtown shot

Ottawa has a reputation as a boring city and needs to better hype its unique neighbourhoods and “urban assets” such as the ByWard Market if it wants to shed that label, a leading global marketing expert says.

“You have great neighbourhoods, but nobody knows,” Frank Cuypers, a marketing professor at the University of Antwerp and a senior strategist with international marketing agency Destination Think!, said during a virtual presentation at Ottawa’s city-building summit on Friday.

“The ByWard Market, that’s something you don’t find in Halifax or Vancouver. People don’t know it. This really hurts your image as being a vibrant city.”

The marketing expert has worked with urban centres around the world, including Ottawa, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, to help them better promote themselves. He cited numerous cities that have become magnets for skilled talent as well as tourists because the entire community has gotten behind efforts to promote their most attractive attributes.

Cuypers cited cities such as Copenhagen and Portland, Ore., as examples of places the average person might not immediately think of as tourist meccas. But both communities have worked hard to elevate their global brands and have become sought-after destinations for visitors, Cuypers explained.

'The choice is up to you'

There’s no reason why Ottawa can’t do the same thing, he added.

“The choice is up to you,” Cuypers said, explaining that if Ottawa acts now to raise awareness of the city as a tourism hotspot, “you will grow faster in reputation, which will help you to prosper.”

The branding guru did have some good news for the online audience of more than 150. 

He said the city already has a solid slogan, “Canada in one city,” a tagline unveiled by Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt a couple of years ago that Cuypers said reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity of the nation’s capital. 

He added that Ottawa Tourism will unveil a new branding campaign later this year with a “pinnacle event” aimed at drawing widespread attention to the new marketing strategy.

“Your image right now is too homogeneous for me,” Cuypers added. “Neighbourhoods will play a very decisive role in (changing) that. If these neighbourhoods are not promoted well, (the new brand) is not going to work.”

Avoiding urban sprawl

Cuypers was one of several featured speakers at the one-day online conference hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade. 

Among the other presenters at Friday’s event were Toronto-based urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat​ ​– who said Ottawa needs to rein in its urban sprawl if it wants to become a more walkable, transit-oriented city ​– and Jeff Westeinde, the lead developer of the new 34-acre Zibi mixed-use community on the Ottawa River west of downtown.

A partnership between Ottawa-based Theia Partners and Toronto’s Dream Unlimited, Zibi features eight acres of new waterfront parks and plazas along with four million square feet of real estate in Ottawa and Gatineau. 

When finished, the site will employ 6,000 people and be home to 5,000 residents. Westeinde told the virtual audience the multibillion-dollar project is now 15 per cent complete. 

Zibi building
The new Zibi waterfront mixed-use community will eventually feature more than four million square feet of real estate. Image courtesy Zibi

Touting its zero-carbon innovations – which include recycling waste industrial heat from the nearby Kruger paper plant in downtown Gatineau to heat Zibi’s buildings – the longtime developer also said the community will feature eye-popping tourist attractions such as a 1,400-foot-long zipline that will whisk participants across the Ottawa River from 120 feet above the water. The zipline is set to open in June.

“Not many people get to look out of their office window and watch people zipping across the Ottawa River,” Westeinde said with a chuckle.